In Re Ricardo Rodríguez, a landmark civil rights case, began when Ricardo Rodríguez, a Mexican of humble means who had resided in San Antonio for 10 years, came before the federal district court of Judge Thomas S. Maxey in May 1896 to request final approval of his application for United States citizenship, which would naturally confer on him the right to vote. His action initiated legal maneuvers to disfranchise all Texas Mexicans. This situation lasted almost a year until Judge Maxey delivered his ruling on May 3, 1897, in favor of Rodríguez, thereby legally affirming the civil rights of Texas Mexicans to vote. The Rodríguez citizenship case was the culmination of a series of calls for disfranchisement of Hispanics that had appeared regularly after the Texas Revolution in 1836. The Rodríguez case finally brought the status of Tejano voting rights into the courts for settlement. Rodríguez's request for citizenship focused attention on the fact that most Tejanos were born in Mexico and could not vote unless they had applied for naturalization. San Antonio politician T. J. McMinn had already raised the issue of Texas Mexicans' right to vote during previous elections before he stepped into the controversy surrounding Rodríguez's fight for citizenship. In this battle he was joined by another local politician, Jack Evans, in opposing Rodríguez. At the center of the debate on Rodríguez's right to citizenship was the suggestion made by McMinn and Evans that under the law he did not qualify for citizenship since he was not "a white person, nor an African, nor of African descent, and is therefore not capable of becoming an American citizen." Indeed, an 1872 federal statute specified that only Caucasians and Africans could become citizens, but at the same time did not specifically deny Mexicans that right.
In his testimony before the court, Ricardo Rodríguez acknowledged that his interest in becoming a citizen lay in his long residency in Texas. He claimed that he considered his cultural heritage to be "pure-blooded Mexican" but that he was a descendant neither of any of the aboriginal peoples of Mexico, nor of the Spaniards, nor of Africans. He also swore that he was not acquainted with the form of government in the United States. These latter two issues were critical, since they raised the questions of racial and educational qualifications for achieving citizenship. The testimony of James Fisk, a character witness for Rodríguez, proved to be another important influence on the judge's decision. Fisk told the court that on the basis of his ten-year acquaintanceship with Rodríguez, he could attest that Rodríguez was "a good man, of sound moral character, a hard worker, a peaceful law abiding citizen," whose "ignorance of the Constitution notwithstanding, would dutifully uphold its principles if he knew them." Interest in the case was high throughout the city and among Texas Hispanics elsewhere. In an effort to rally support for the protection of their rights to vote, a group of 200 men of Mexican descent met to condemn the "effort being made in Federal Court to prevent Mexicans from becoming by naturalization voting citizens of the United States." They also linked the Populists (see PEOPLE'S PARTY) and Republicans to this latest tactic to disfranchise Texas Mexicans. They suspected these two parties since McMinn and Evans were members of the Populist and Republican parties, respectively. Tejanos especially feared McMinn because his possible ascendancy to the Texas Supreme Court would bode ill for their civil rights. Maxey's decision prevented further attempts to use the courts to deprive Texas Mexicans of voting rights.
In asserting that Rodríguez had the right to become a citizen of the United States, Maxey stated that since 1836 both "the Republic of Texas and the United States had by various collective acts of naturalization conferred upon Mexicans the rights and privileges of American citizenship." He pointed out that the Constitution of the Republic of Texas granted citizenship to Mexicans living in the republic on Independence Day, and that congressional resolutions in 1845 had further extended citizenship to Mexicans after annexation. In addition, he recalled that Article VIII of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo allowed for the conferral of American citizenship on Mexicans who continued to live in the territory ceded after the Mexican War if they failed to declare their desire to become Mexican citizens. Turning to the relationship between race and citizenship, Judge Maxey declared that the Fourteenth Amendment granted citizenship to all people born or naturalized in the United States, regardless of color or race. Moreover, he noted, "We have freely received emigrants from all nations, and invested them with rights of citizens." He added, "The conclusion forces itself upon the mind that citizens of Mexico are eligible to American citizenship, and may be individually naturalized by complying with the provisions of our laws." In rendering his final decision, Maxey affirmed that neither race nor educational attainment were legal determinants in acquiring citizenship. See also MEXICAN AMERICANS.